Last week at the gas station, a man I didn’t know approached me at the pump and asked me if I could give him some change to help him fill up his car. “I’m running short on money this week,” he said.
At first I said no. I was startled… strangers don’t usually approach me at the gas pump. And I thought all the thoughts that often go through our mind in these situations. What if he’s not a good person? What will he really do with the money?
But then, as the fuel pumped into my car, the truth pumped into me. My response to this man wasn’t right. Maybe I didn’t know who he was, but I knew what he was. He was a pilgrim.
We might think of pilgrims as people from another time with a penchant for funny hats (I write about some of these people in my new book). Or perhaps as folks with backpacks walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Yet these images we have—that I have—can blind us to the fact that not all pilgrims are distant historical figures or travelers on faraway paths. Sometimes, they’re people like you and me; people on life’s journey who can’t make it alone.
In simple terms —
Pilgrims are strangers — That person you just met or who just asked you for help may be unknown to you, but their very “strangeness” makes them a pilgrim. In Roman times, a peregrinus, the Latin word from which we get “pilgrim,” was someone “not from these parts.” It was a legal term. The Bible teaches that Christians are pilgrims because we’re not from these parts, either. (Heb 11:13) We don’t belong to the world and its ways. We’re all strangers here.
Pilgrims are travelers — In the Middle Ages, peregrinus morphed to mean someone on a journey, usually one of sacred import. Have you encountered any travelers lately? Maybe someone fueling up at the pump next to yours? Or someone on a difficult path through life? Every person is on his way somewhere—or trying to be, if he gets a tank of gas.
Pilgrims are needy — Historically, pilgrims often traveled in desperate circumstances. Medieval pilgrims frequently were ill or were atoning for sin or crimes. Many arrived at their destination completely broke, relying on others to help them and even to keep them alive. That day at the gas station, I was charged to help a pilgrim in need. The next time, it might be me who needs help.
Although I hesitated at first, I walked over to the pilgrim after filling my tank. He was standing beside his car and running his fingers through his hair in a gesture of utter despair (he must have coasted in on fumes). I did what I could for him. It wasn’t much because I didn’t have much to give. But then another man walked over and also gave some money. I hope that enabled the pilgrim to get further down the road.
Having studied pilgrimage for so long, I’m chastened that I had to remind myself to help. What I needed, and what I got, was a lesson that brought my studies down to earth. Pilgrimage teaches us about our biblical identity as people on our way to the heavenly country. In practical terms, it means that we welcome the stranger and help one another on our long journey home. We are all pilgrims, and we need each other. No one walks – er, drives – alone.